As part of her work as a 2021 Switzer fellow, Natalie Lord has launched the website, A Rising Tide?, highlighting women’s experiences as oyster producers.
The project is billed by its sponsors as the first case study to analyze gender in Maine and New Hampshire’s aquaculture industry through visual storytelling. Its goal is to share the photographic and narrative data the research participants collected on their experiences owning and operating an oyster farm in Maine and New Hampshire.
The Maine Monitor has partnered with Lord (who was advised by Dr. Catherine Ashcraft), the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation and the New Hampshire Sea Grant to republish the series that showcases the stories of four women oyster farmers and why it’s important to study women in aquaculture. The narrative below is written in the first person by Alicia Gaiero.
Boat Problems and Triumphs
Boat problems…summer of 2021 I had some ongoing problems. I struggled to get a mechanic to look at my engine due to peak season and high demand. I wasn’t raised on the water or working on engines.
When I finally shared to a boatyard that I was an oyster farmer I was given the time of day. I appreciated that they got me right in and took care of my boat.
Every day on the water provoked anxiety. The thoughts of “am I doing this right? Is my engine too loud in the morning? Am I going too fast in the mooring field? Did I make a mess on the dock — will locals be mad at me? Are they mad I have a mooring in a residential field despite not living on this island?”
I was often concerned about how I looked. I don’t have a lifetime of experience on the water.
In truth, the summer of 2021 was the first time I was really out on the water operating my boat and farm alone. I didn’t know what was wrong or right and I feared a rookie mistake could damage my boat, harm someone else, harm the gear or damage relationships with waterfront homeowners.
I am proud of my boat and the things I learned from the internet. I learned to change my prop. I also properly diagnosed my boat problems on YouTube and ended up impressing my mechanic who did not expect me to be right. My proudest moments were when I was forced out of my comfort zone and things felt high risk.
Closer to Independence
The purchase of this tumbler allowed me to continue to step towards independence.
My mentor had offered to let me use their tumbler for my oysters in exchange for tumbling his oysters at a 1:2 ratio. I could tumble one of my lines of gear in exchange for tumbling two of his. This was beyond my abilities.
It is difficult for me to gather the people necessary to tumble just my own oysters and found this idea incredibly stressful. I would have rather paid to use it. I felt like I had to make sure that I could work independently to be successful. So, this was a big day.
The Public Dock
The dock is where I had some interesting interactions. At the public boat launch I’ve had people clap when backing my trailer to launch my boat and when loading it on the trailer. I’ve had people ask my male friend who I had back my car and trailer into the water “why he was making me do all the work?” This often made me laugh because I understood the novelty.
Often there were older people in the community who go to the boat launch as a place to eat launch or sit by the water and they don’t usually see people who look like me, out there doing what I do. I would like to know one day that there are just as many female boat owners and commercial female fishermen as males but for now I’ll keep enjoying the authentic conversations at the dock.
I take pride in being different than the norm. I enjoy when these onlookers say they’re proud because I think I often forget to be proud too. As silly as it sounds, I am helping to pave the way for other women one interaction at a time. I am also proud of how my confidence has grown at the docks.
In the summer and fall of 2020 my anxiety peaked at the launch. I was new and it felt like I was driving without a license! How do they not require training for this? I feared how many times it might take me to back my boat in and park my car and trailer.
I was worried I’d make a mistake — like the time I unhooked the boat from the trailer, and I was alone so I had to go for an unexpected swim while the boat floated away. I was embarrassed and scared of the harbormaster. Now I have a really excellent relationship with him.
Here is a deceiving look at my farm. I applied for leases in the first weeks of COVID. The world shut down and there were a number of new barriers. The DMR lost some staff due to funding, and harbormasters were difficult to tract down.
I struggled to get my leases approved and I had already placed a deposit on gear and seed. My mentor offered to let me use his lease. This was intended to be for his expansion but he allowed me to use two of his lines. Mine are the two to the right. The two in the middle are another farmer’s. He experienced a similar issue with the leasing process taking too long. The two on the left are the actual lease holders.
I am grateful that he shares his space. I had to use the same gear as he did which was no problem but ever since I’ve been working towards independence. I’ve since been able to get 8 leases for the farm and move one of my two lines. The second will be moved as soon as I can this spring.
At this time I did not yet have my own tumbler either and was reliant on my mentor. Often he asked for free labor in exchange. I look forward to no longer being on the hook for the favor that was done for me.
I have since had my own tumbler built and it was designed so I could go along my lines to be as efficient as possible. I was asked to not tumble or play music at the site and having to move my product added significant time to the process as my boat was not large enough to really carry the oysters, the tumbler and new bags easily.
I am excited to continue towards my independence.
Big Sale and Big Mistake
This is a photo of my largest harvest and biggest sale. This was an exciting day and the image I shared on social media. It was 2,300 oysters heading to New York City.
What isn’t photographed is that on this day I made a big mistake. I spent the morning changing the prop on my boat in an unconventional way. We — myself and my friend Emma who had also never changed a prop — brought the boat to shore while I worked on it with the help of YouTube. The tide was coming in and the boat was getting moved up the beach.
Once I had everything apart I learned I needed an additional part. I had to leave Emma with the boat for more than an hour while she made sure it didn’t get stuck on the beach — since it had no prop it could not be returned to the mooring. I was able to get the part and eventually returned and successfully put things back together.
We went on a quick ride to the farm where I had hoped to check on things and make sure the boat worked in the preparation for this large harvest that I thought was for the following day.
On a hunch, I texted the buyer and learned I needed to harvest the 2,300 oysters that day! I freaked out. I was unprepared. I didn’t have enough coolers or ice but fortunately, the temperature was cold, and I had presorted the product.
So, we harvested and I figured out the rest later. To the average person, they see a big sale but they don’t see the problems that we overcame to come to this point. I was stressed, as harvesting is only a very small piece of bringing the product to market. I would have to wash, bag, and tag the oysters as well as keep them on ice until delivery.
So, on this day I learned a few lessons and this photo means so much more to me than a big sale. It represents my ability to overcome unexpected barriers and persevere.